Should we use textbooks in the ESL classroom?
Oct 14, 2016 English Language Teaching (ELT) 2924 Views
Should we use textbooks in the ESL classroom?
ESL textbooks are a lucrative business and the choice of available course books is seemingly endless. That being said, the use of textbooks in the classroom remains a contentious issue for many teachers and researchers. As is often the case both sides of the debate have valid points that should be considered. This article will look at some of the positives and negatives of using textbooks in the ESL classroom.
It is believed by many teachers and researchers that textbooks limit the learning and creative potential of students and teachers. Littlejohn, in (Hutchinson & Torres, 1994, p.316) claims that textbooks ‘reduce the teachers’ role to one of managing or overseeing preplanned events’ which can be demoralizing for teachers which then filters through to the students. Scrivener, also talks of textbooks having a negative effect on teachers, claiming that teachers who succumb to the temptation of using textbooks have a tendency to keep classes on a predictable straight line by using tasks that are routine and comfortable (Scrivener, 1994, p.77). The result is boring unimaginative lessons.
Another common cause of boredom in the classroom is when the material used is either too easy or too difficult (Scrivener, 1994, p.77). Modern theories of language acquisition often focus on learner centered classrooms. Detractors suggest that teachers’ attempts to meet individual learner needs when it comes to creating learner centered environments are severely hindered by the use of textbooks (Crawford, 2002, p.81). It is extremely difficult; perhaps impossible to select a textbook that is appropriate for the whole class. So is teacher created material the answer? This adds a lot of extra preparation time for teachers. Furthermore, original texts created to cater for a particular ESL level can also cause boredom as they ‘fail to present appropriate and realistic language models’ (Porter & Roberts, 1981).
The sheer number of textbooks available is clear evidence that they have a place. Used correctly textbooks can be an invaluable source of activities for practice and communicative interaction (Cunningsworth, 1995, p.7). The problems mentioned earlier focused on the monotony that results from rigidly sticking to a textbook. However, a study by Stodolsky (1989) found that only a minority of teachers follow textbooks in a page-by-page manner (Stodolsky, 1989, p.77). This has support in another study by Donoghue, who suggests that the majority of teachers only use textbooks occasionally as a guideline and site their potential as ‘an essential source of information and support’ (Donoghue, 1992, p.35).This can be particularly positive for new or inexperienced teachers. In my personal ESL experience I have often found that new teachers are given little or no training before taking on a new class. Having a tried and tested textbook on hand can be an invaluable form of support. I would think that teachers become less dependent on textbooks the more experienced they become, although I am not aware of any studies that have tested this.
The role of the textbook is to be at the service of learners and teachers not to be their master (Cunningsworth, 1995, p.7).Teachers can adapt and supplement the material in the textbook to suit their learners’ needs. This can stimulate teachers and allow them to be creative. With experience teachers also learn when to cut activities short or skip sections of the textbook for the benefit of the class. A teacher has to gain the confidence of the students and clearly explain why certain areas are being skipped or adapted. This is important because it can be difficult for learners to let go of the textbook; ‘students often feel extremely positive about coarsebooks. They can be reassuring and allow reflection, and preparation for what is coming next’ (Harmer, 2007, p.152). Moreover, learners often pay for textbooks and expect to get value for their money, and their progress through the text is often used as a benchmark for success (Cunningsworth, 1995, p.7).
Chaining oneself to the idea that a certain unit should be completed at a certain time should never become the goal of a course. The focus should be meeting the objectives and aims of the class, not completing a set number of pages (Cunningsworth, 1995, p.7). Learners can also get caught up on trying to finish a book to progress to the next stage; causing negative washback and hindering class activities. Every teacher reading this is familiar with the ubiquitous early finishers; students that race through the material (for better or worse) finishing faster than the others, who then begin tasks that are planned for future classes. This is not a point for the advocates of textbook free classrooms.Teacher’s simply need to be prepared with bonus material. This point is relevant at every stage of education, from having coloring pages ready for kindergarten kids or extra worksheets for ESL undergraduates.
There are examples in this article that present valid arguments against using textbooks. It is true that students and teachers can get attached to textbooks for the wrong reasons. This can derive from pressure outside the classroom from parents or management. Fear of the unknown is also a reason that teachers can become attached to a textbook; at the beginning of my career the thought of burning through my material with 40 minutes left on the clock was a constant cause of anxiety. I hope that this article has also shown that textbooks have their place and can be extremely beneficial for teachers and learners if used correctly. Teachers have to be flexible to adapt and supplement textbooks to suit the needs of their classrooms, it is not the role of the text to ‘exercise a tyrannical function as the arbiter of coarse content and teaching methods’ (Cunningsworth, 1995, p.7).
Crawford, J. (2002) The role of materials in the language classroom. in Richards, J. C., & Renandya, W. A. (eds) Methodology in language teaching: An anthology of current practice. Cambridge university press.
Cunningsworth, A. (1995). Choosing your coursebook. Oxford: Heinemann.
Donoghue, F. (1992). Teachers' guides: A review of their function. Trinity College Centre for Language and Communication Studies.
Harmer, J. (2007). The practice of English language teaching. Pearson Longman.
Hutchinson, T. & Torres, E. (1994). The textbook as agent of change. ELT journal, 48(4), 315-328.
Porter, D., & Roberts, J. (1981). Authentic listening activities1. ELT journal, 36(1), 37-47.
Scrivener, J. (1994). Learning teaching. Oxford: Heinemann.
Stodolsky, S. (1989) Is teaching by the book? in Jackson, P. W., & Haroutunian-Gordon, S. (Eds.). From Socrates to software: the teacher as text and the text as teacher (Vol. 88). University of Chicago Press.